Baltimore's ethics board launched an inquiry Tuesday into the use of free tickets to 1st Mariner Arena by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office, citing concerns about the distribution of tickets to the mayor's family and staff.
"The entire enterprise raises issues and concerns," said attorney and board member Guy E. Flynn.
The Baltimore Sun reported last week that Rawlings-Blake's office received hundreds of tickets each year to events at the city-owned arena. The mayor, accompanied by relatives and top aides, attended several sold-out concerts, such as shows by Rihanna and Jay-Z, for free.
Rawlings-Blake's office has defended the use of the tickets, noting that previous mayors also have attended arena events at no charge under the terms of the city's agreement with the arena's operators. Officials said the mayor's office donates many of the tickets to events that include Baltimore Blast soccer games and the circus to children and community groups.
The mayor "has made ethics a top priority of her administration and welcomes a review of a long-standing policy that goes back several decades and administrations," said Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. "Event tickets are not paid for with taxpayer funds, and there is zero evidence that any part of this is new or out of the ordinary."
Brennan said Rawlings-Blake has drafted and signed into law legislation that restructured the ethics board to make it more independent, and also mandated more ethics training and disclosure. One bill staggered board member terms and reduced the number of mayoral nominees from five to three, though the mayor still appoints all five.
The ethics board voted unanimously Tuesday to request a copy of the city's operating agreement with 1st Mariner Arena and to draft a list of questions for the mayor's office about how the tickets are used. The five-member board, created by a city charter amendment in 1963, is composed of citizens and enforces prohibitions against conflict of interest.
The ethics board can issue opinions and advise agency heads on appropriate discipline for an employee in violation of the ethics code, said Avery Aisenstark, a city employee who serves as the panel's director. The board does not have enforcement powers, though it could take the city to court, he said.
"I'm not trying to make trouble here," said the board's chairwoman, Linda "Lu" Pierson, adding that she hoped it was not "untoward" of the board to seek to review the city's contract with 1st Mariner's operator.
Pierson raised concerns about mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty's explanation of why Rawlings-Blake did not report arena tickets on her 2011 ethics forms. He told The Sun the mayor's office concluded she does not need to report the tickets because the arena is owned by the city. Elected city officials must disclose gifts from entities that do business with the city.
Pierson questioned whether "the city could give the mayor anything it wanted to."
Aisenstark played down concerns about the use of the tickets by the mayor's office.
"The precedent has been set," he said. "This has been going on with the arena for some time."
But Flynn said the fact that former mayors also received free tickets did not mean that further scrutiny isn't merited.
"This board has looked at the way things ought to be done, not how they have been done," Flynn said.
Public records obtained by The Sun showed that some city employees received more than a dozen tickets to events such as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Others often received tickets to concerts headlined by popular performers. This year, Rawlings-Blake and family members have attended eight events, including the Cirque du Soleil.
The records, which cover the past 21/2 years and were released by City Hall, include lists kept by Rawlings-Blake's office of ticket recipients and the number of tickets each was given. The records included email between an aide to the mayor who was charged with organizing ticket distribution for Rawlings-Blake's office and a 1st Mariner Arena employee.
Flynn said he wanted to further explore the issue of how the tickets are distributed within the mayor's office. He questioned whether the tickets would constitute an in-kind contribution to the staff members and whether they ever sold the tickets.
Aisenstark called the tickets a "perk" and cautioned that further scrutinizing the arrangement would "lead us to a slope."
"These are touchy because they touch on the prerogatives of the executive department," Aisenstark said.
The four board members who attended the meeting decided to continue to look into the issue at their next monthly meeting. One board member was absent.
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